iZombie’s unconventional take on the cop procedural and The Girl with All the Gifts’ post-apocalyptic vision of a world in which “hungries” have taken over would initially seem to have very little in common. Yet each makes a convincing case for accepting human extinction as a natural part of the life/death continuum, asking us to consider the question: are we better off dead?
With roots in 17th and 18th century Haiti, the zombie has long been a malleable figure, a “tabula rasa” as Kyle Bishop puts it, easily “rewritten and reused.” Haitian mythology encapsulated the fear and threat of slavery under French colonial rule – to become a zombie was to be confined within a soulless body, trapped in an eternal afterlife of enslavement. More recently, the zombie’s lack of free will, individual consciousness or the ability to communicate are often read as a metaphor for the alienation of modernity.
The zombie protagonists film and television have produced over the last few years diverge significantly from their lumbering and groaning forebears. In the contemporary zombie narrative, death appears to offer more prospects for fulfilment than life. Deborah Christie & Sarah Juliet Lauro, interested in the hybridity of human and zombie, insist that:
“We must ask ourselves: Are zombies becoming more human, or are humans becoming more like zombies?”
A recent flurry of TV shows like Santa Clarita Diet and In the Flesh, and films like Life After Beth and Warm Bodies suggests that the zombie is no longer our enemy; we are the zombie, the zombie is us. Moreover, the growing ubiquity of the female zombie protagonist (along with In the Flesh’s queer male protagonist) makes a striking departure from the genre’s customary focus on intrepid male heroes battling zombie foes.
“What’s the worst that can happen?”
In its first episode, iZombie’s Liv Moore is an overachieving medical resident, she’s smart, driven, and her life has thus far followed a strict goal-oriented trajectory. She’d much rather be working than at a party with her fiancée. “What’s the worst that can happen?” he asks. Cut to Liv taking cover under a table as her fellow partygoers are devoured by zombies. The remainder of the episode sees Liv adjust to her undead existence and sets up the core conceit of the show. Liv trades her prestigious career for a job at the morgue, providing handy access to the sustenance she needs to prevent her from going “Romero.” Not only that, but the brains she consumes trigger visions of the dead person’s last moments, enabling her to solve their murders.
It’s the brain of a free-spirited artist who sparks an epiphany, as Liv comes to realise that “there were parts of me that were dead even before I became a zombie.” Ironically, dying offers Liv a chance to, well, live. The zombie virus is imbued with potential, offering a more fulfilling life than the familiar trajectory of the single-minded career woman and the inexorable grind towards marriage and eventual motherhood. The series implicitly questions the social norms and economic necessities influencing Liv’s dedication to a traditional career track through the realization of her stifled potential. Clearly the zombie has mutated; no longer a metaphor for the mindless drudgery of capitalism, but now embodying the solution to living under its constraints.
In The Girl with All the Gifts, death isn’t the means to find fulfilment within the familiar structures of our own lives. Death is the new world order, and Melanie (Sennia Nenua) is the “special girl” who ushers in the next evolutionary era. Adapted from MR Carey’s novel, GWATG introduces us to a world ravaged by a mysterious fungal infection. Braindead “first-generation” zombies sway mindlessly in the streets until sound or motion activates their rapacious appetite for human flesh. It’s the second generation, “able to think and interact with their environment,” who prove to be the only hope for repopulating the planet. The film introduces us to Melanie and her classmates confined within a military prison compound where Sergeant Parks (Paddy Considine) straps the children into wheelchairs, ruthless scientist Dr Caldwell (Glenn Close) conducts fatal experiments on them, and the lovely Miss Justineau teaches them Greek mythology. After a brutal zombie attack on the compound, the rag-tag group (along with Fisayo Akinade’s wholesome Private Kieran Gallagher) treks across London looking for survivors.
Credited for revitalizing the zombie horror genre in 2002, 28 Days Later is a classic contagion narrative, mobilizing global anxieties about infection and mass outbreaks. London is a desolate wasteland and the virus results in the chaotic destruction of society. Viral infection is a source of utter terror, to be feared and overcome. At the centre of this narrative is the human, whose survival is paramount.
By contrast feminist philosopher Rosi Braidotti is interested in an ethical model that takes all forms of life into account. Following the posthumanist tradition that seeks to (among other goals) decentre the human, Braidotti writes that when our own mortality is located as the defining centre of being, our entire social contract is predicated on survival in ways that are often detrimental to a public or planetary good. In other words, humans are merely another part of the world, far from the most important beings inhabiting it.
Although GWATG also plays on fears of contagion via the fungal infection threatening our collective survival, the film’s resolution deviates radically from the usual apocalyptic narrative. Dr Caldwell is convinced that Melanie’s brain is the key to developing a vaccine that will save the human race. The antithesis of Braidotti’s philosophy, Caldwell imagines our extinction as “the end of the world,” as though without humans populating the Earth, all other life forms are meaningless. Unlike Dr Caldwell’s humanist perspective, the film itself, however, imagines life as a continuum where the death of our species is simply an inevitable evolutionary moment.
When faced with an irreversible decision that will make the pathogen airborne (thus wiping out what little remains of humanity), Melanie asks Dr Caldwell, quite reasonably, why she ought to sacrifice herself to save humanity. Why do humans deserve to live above any other species? Yet, far from the bleak urgency of 28 Days Later, the film’s vision of the end of the world is luminous. Simon Dennis’ striking cinematography brings the zombie horror genre back to life with hazy, vibrant shots of Melanie playfully exploring unfamiliar terrain, greenery springing up in the streets, foliage trailing over deserted shop-fronts. Without humans, the film suggests, the world will be just fine, perhaps even flourish. The end of the world is in fact a new beginning, a revival.
Braidotti writes that “sustainability does assume faith in a future, and also a sense of responsibility for ‘passing on’ to future generations a world that is liveable and worth living in”. With vastly different approaches, iZombie and GWATG question the ways we live, and whether in fact we ought to live at all. However, far from nihilistic, they retain a refreshing optimism for the future. We can live differently within the constraints of our society, suggests iZombie, and GWATG has immense faith in a sustainable, livable future – simply one that doesn’t belong to us. As Melanie says to Sergeant Parks before he’s infected, “It’s not over, it’s just not yours anymore.”
Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman. 2013. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Deborah Christie & Sarah Juliet Lauro. 2011. ‘Introduction,’ Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-human. 2011. New York: Fordham University Press.